Semantic dimensions of colour

Ou et al. (2004) who investigated colour combinations identified three colour factors with the method of factor analysis that gave the best cross-cultural results, in particular the colour temperature, colour weight and colour activity parameters. This results in three antagonistic pairs, which prove important when it comes to emotional values, nml. cold/warm, heavy/light and passive/active. This model is confirmed by Wang (2007). In other studies on colour psychology, the terms inner/outer and hard/soft are used. (Lüscher, 1969; Heller, 1989) Without contradictions these terms can be placed in the 3-dimensional model of the Semantic Colour Space.



There is a strong connection with the colour temperature parameter cold/warm and the parameter far away/close by. The perceptual and psychological effect of this contrast shows that warm colours tend to come forward in an image (close by), while cool colours tend to step back (far away). In classical landscape paintings, for example, the blue colour was applied to suggest depth and distance. Cold colours create space, distance and depth, they do not impose themselves. Cold colours encourage people to do mental activities. Warm colours have the quality to come close. They provide a sociable and physical state of mind. The research of Eva Heller (1989) shows that this colour quality is related to psychological introversion (inward / outward). Extrovert people appear to prefer red, orange and yellow.

A clear correlation has been established between a feeling of temperature and the wavelength of a colour. Psychological research shows that the subjective experience of colour temperature changes abruptly when the value above 120° CIELAB (NCS R50B) has been exceeded. The same sudden change occurs around 330° CIELAB  (NCS G50Y). (da Pos & Valenti, 2007) This connection appears to work cross-culturally, although some slight differences in culture are measured, when it comes to the cold/warm borders. (Sato, Xin & Hansuebsai, 2003)



Cold/inner colours are blue, black, green and purple.

Warm/outer colours are yellow, white, red and brown


There is a strong connection between the physical colour parameter of lightness and the feeling of weight and hardness. Osgood (1957) shows a correlation between heavy, hard and large, while lightweight is rather soft, fine and small. Other research results support the earlier qualitative findings that “dark” colours appear heavier than “light” colours, while providing quantitative meaning to the terms dark and light. (Alexander & SHANSKY, 1976) White and black are the most extreme examples of weight. Dark colours, when applied above the viewer, tend to press down or dominate. Because of their heaviness, the weight is physically sensed. A black ceiling will be estimated lower than a white. When applied below the viewer, dark colours tend to give a feeling of support due to their synesthetic effect of hardness.

KHNUM-dimension-H0KHNUM-dimension-H1Heavy/hard colours are blue, black, brown and red

Lightweight/soft colours are yellow, white, purple and green


The psychologist Lüscher (1969) uses the parameter active/passive in his colour test. His active colours are yellow and red, the passive blue and green.

This parameter is strongly connected to the saturation dimension. The amount of chroma has an effect on the feeling of activity. The brighter the colour the more dynamics will arise. Passive feelings such as sadness are associated with very unsaturated colours, while active feelings such as happiness, surprise and anger are linked to bright colours.


Active colours are black, purple, red and yellow

Passive colours are white, brown, green and blue